Coconut Oil: Super Food or Myth?

— Written By Ann Simmons and last updated by
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What if I told you there was a food that could help with weight loss, protection against Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce the risk of heart disease? Sounds great right? These claims are being made about coconut oil, which has recently become a health craze for some. Unfortunately, these claims are not backed by enough science to truly be seen as facts. Let’s review the research so that you can make an educated decision on how much, if any, coconut oil you should consume in your diet.

Coconut oil has an extremely high content of saturated fat, commonly known as the “bad” fat, at 92% or around 11.8g per tablespoon. Coconut oil also contains 0.8g of monounsaturated fats and 0.2g of polyunsaturated fat, which are generally seen as the “good” fats. Let’s compare this to other foods that are commonly seen as “bad” for you. Butter contains 7.2g of saturated, 3.3g monounsaturated, and 0.5g polyunsaturated per tablespoon. Beef fat contains 6.4g of saturated, 5.4g of monounsaturated, and 0.5g of polyunsaturated fat per tablespoon. Both butter and beef fat, which are generally frowned upon as a daily cooking aid, have lower amounts of “bad” fat and higher amounts of “good” fat. Why aren’t these touted as super foods? The fat content of olive oil, which is generally seen as a healthy oil option, contains 1.8g of saturated, 10g of monounsaturated, and 1.2g of polyunsaturated fats per tablespoon.

So why is saturated fat considered a “bad” fat? Saturated fat has long been connected to an increased heart disease risk and an increased level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Recent research suggests that saturated fat may not be as bad as previously thought, which further increases the mystery surrounding coconut oil. While coconut oil may increase your LDL levels, it has also been shown to increase the level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol more than other fats.

Coconut oil does have a very high content of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which is seen as a beneficial fat. MCTs are quickly metabolized by the liver and used for energy, unlike saturated fat, which can easily increase calories and lead to a surplus of energy that leads to storage of body fat. Some scientists suggest that this high amount of MCTs may outweigh the risk of the high amounts of saturated fat content in coconut oil. Others suggest that MCTs may cause some people to struggle in controlling their blood sugar levels due to the fast uptake within the liver and slight blood sugar-lowering effects MCTs have shown.

The research surrounding coconut oil health claims is still incomplete and somewhat conflicting. Coconut oil contains high amounts of saturated fat and low amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which may lead to an increased risk of heart disease. Coconut oil has also shown limited evidence of aiding in weight loss and decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in recent research studies. While fat is a huge component in a healthy diet, more research needs to be done on coconut oil before it can be touted as a super food. In the meantime, limit the amounts of coconut oil you consume and consider using extra virgin olive oil for cooking to increase the amounts of “good” fats in your diet.

For more information or to attend workshops on nutrition and diet contact the Catawba County Cooperative Extension Service – 828-465-8247.

This article was written by Cameron Forbes, Dietetic Intern with Lenoir Rhyne University